Light Bulbs A’Plenty

Ideas, ideas everywhere, and too many thinks to think…

Writers are, by nature, creative people, and as such look at things a little differently. Take the everyday and drama it up a bit – add sequins, monsters in argyle, and gears and levers, and you have an inkling of what goes on in the head of a writer. It’s magical, and it’s exhilarating, and, at times, it’s exhausting.

One of the hardest things (and, arguably, the best things) about being a writer is the constant having of ideas – ideas for characters, ideas for plots, ideas for settings – and not knowing what to do with them.

Though there are *wizard* writers who have the ability to work on more than one project at a time, I am not one of them. (Seriously, it’s black magic, and I don’t have the right type of wand.) It takes all of my discipline and concentration (and so, so much coffee) to focus and finish a single project, there’s no way I can carry on multiples at the same time. So what’s a one-project-at-a-time-minded writer to do with all of her ideas that come at the most inopportune times, like while she’s in the middle of a current project?

Well, I certainly don’t want to forget the idea. I mean, I’ll need a starting point for whatever comes next, right? But neither do I want it to derail me from what I’m immediately trying to accomplish. (Writing writing writing oh, look, a shiny new adventure!) < This is not a good thing.

So, this is what works for me. And maybe it can work for you, too.

I have an “Ideas” notebook. This is – wait for it – a notebook filled with ideas. (Genius, I know.  Hold your applause, though, until the end.) I allow each idea one page. One. No more. I write *whatever* the idea is (plot, setting, character, object, etc.) at the top, and then I give myself the space of one page to write around that idea. The text on the page can be thoughts, questions, observations, subsequent ideas, whatever – it doesn’t matter. But when I get to the end of the page, that’s it. Then I have to put it down and go back to what I was working on. One page gives me enough space to develop the idea a little bit, and to give it some context, but not enough to really delve in and become immersed.

Why am I so mean to myself, you ask. Well, it’s because I know myself. And I know that I ❤ new projects, but I don’t ❤ abandoning WIPs. And if I allow myself to focus on a new idea before I finish the one I’m working on, chances are better than even money I won’t finish either one. So, in the interest of my precious story children, one page is all my new ideas get. Until it’s their turn to be the focus project.

Ideas are a writer’s blessing and curse. How do you handle those ideas that pop into your head and threaten to take over your writerly life?

 

 

What the Heck Did I Just Read?

Have you ever asked yourself this question after finishing a book? I just did.

To be honest, I don’t read a lot of “recommended” books. Not because I don’t trust other readers, but because I know my reading tastes. That said, when one of my friends who doesn’t normally recommend books told me I absolutely had to read this book because it was “amazing” I took a shot, and picked up Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

Now, I could take this time to write a traditional review – tell you about the book, the characters, what I liked and didn’t – but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you what this book taught me.

*This book taught me that it’s ok to read outside my “usual” genres. I do not read horror. I do not read suspense. I like sleep too much. Yet this book is considered both horror and suspense, and I read it from start to finish in one sitting. But to be fair, there’s no gross blood and the suspense is all mental. That’s a suspenseful horror I can get behind.

*This book taught me that character names  are more than just titles. So, none of the characters in this book have names. At all. Rather, they are referred to by their job (i.e., “the biologist” or “the phychologist”). I find that the lack of names made me suspicious of ALL the characters, no matter what actions they took. The biologist is presented as the main character, and I found her highly unreliable. In this case, the old adage that “names have power” is relevant; somehow, knowing a character’s name creates a sort of relationship between the reader and the character – a sense of camaraderie. In this case, I felt no connection to the characters, and so trusted nothing about them.

*This book taught me secrecy, the unknown, and insanity can be more terrifying that a serial killer. There is nothing in this book that is reliable. It’s impossible to know what’s real and what’s only in the characters’ minds. The untrustworthiness of the characters made me question everything. The tension is palpable, and the sense of foreboding and dread builds so slowly I almost didn’t realize what was happening until the tiny clues along the way that initially seemed so unimportant suddenly all come together into a truth insidious and alien.

*This book taught me setting can function as character. Area X is as important an element to this story as is any of the human characters. In many ways, it’s more interesting than any of the human characters, too. It’s more dynamic, if not more mysterious. The greatest danger of Area X is unseen, but is present in the effect it has on the human characters manifesting as terror, insanity, and unnatural physical transformation.

*This book taught me resolution isn’t always the endgame. So, to loop around and back to my initial question: What did I just read? I literally can’t answer this. Because the book doesn’t have a resolution. Oh, it has an ending, but it isn’t a pretty, satisfying, wrap-up-all-the-loose-ends ending. In fact, by the end of the book, I didn’t really feel like I knew anything more than I did at the beginning of the book. And, somehow, I was ok with that. Area X is an unsolved mystery.

So, the long and the short of it is, exercise your reading muscles every now and then, and choose something you wouldn’t normally read. Take a chance. You may end up reading something that you completely hate, but, then again, you may end up reading something that you absolutely love – like I just did. So much, in fact, that I devoured the other two volumes of the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, in four days.

And to those of you who have read Annihilation, riddle me this: with regards to Area X – is that the letter X, or is it the Roman numeral ten?

Star Wars is Life.

Star Wars. Is there a better name for literally anything? Definitely not. And especially not the magic that is the Star Wars Universe.

I remember my first introduction into the Star Wars world. I was about five years old, and I was at my grandparents’ house where my parents, aunt and uncle, and grandparents had congregated to watch Return of the Jedi for the first time. My sister and cousins and I were supposed to be in the other room playing, but I was curious about what they were watching, so I snuck around the corner and laid in the back of the living room watching something I would forever after consider a cornerstone of my childhood. I felt worry as Luke fell into the Rancor pit in Jabba’s palace; I felt awe as the Rebel fleet blasted through space; I felt adoration of the furry little Ewoks; I felt terror of Lord Vader. And this sparked a lifelong love and appreciation for what I consider to be one of the greatest cultural phenomenons of my lifetime.

I was in high school when the original trilogy was rereleased into theaters, and stood in line with hundreds of others to experience the magic of Star Wars on the big screen. I had watched all three films of the original trilogy dozens of times by then, and could nearly quote them word-for-word, but seeing them in that environment was like seeing them for the first time. I love the new additions to the universe (with, perhaps, the exception of Jar-Jar Binks. I mean, really? What were they thinking?), and mostly consider them valuable additions (if some of the acting is a little sub-par. But not Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson. And Jimmy Smits. They are the saving grace of the prequel trilogy, IMHO). And Rogue One? Stellar.

Star-Wars-Wallpaper-On-Wallpaper-Hd-16

So, all this to help you understand how excited I was when I heard about From A Certain Point of View, the anthology of forty short stories written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the original Star Wars. I realize there are a plethora of Star Wars books written by many talented authors that add to the larger Star Wars universe; I haven’t read them all. In fact, I haven’t even read most of them. I read a select few years and years ago, and then James Luceno’s Catalyst when it came out because I wanted to know more about Galen Erso. But the premise of this newer foray into the Star Wars world intrigued me. An alternative telling of Star Wars: A New Hope from the POV of all the margin characters? Yes, please, I demand you take my money.

And it was so. very. cool.

Forty stories is a lot. That’s a lot of characters I didn’t even realize weren’t highlighted in the original movie. I mean, we get stories from characters like the band in the cantina on Tattoine, Jawas, Tuscan raiders, the R2 unit with the “bad motivator”, even characters like the officer who failed to shoot the escape pod that carried R2 and 3PO to Tattoine, and the “garbage monster” on the Death Star. Were the stories all great? No. There were a couple where, as I listened (to the audio book), I found my attention wandering (“Kloo Horn Caper”, I’m looking at you), but some of them were utterly fantastic. There were all written in the spirit of Star Wars, and absolutely add to the lore.

A few words about the stories I particularly liked:

  • “Master and Apprentice” – My heart literally skipped a beat when I heard the Master’s voice. I didn’t realize how much I missed Qui-Gon Jinn until I listened to this story. I always liked the dynamic between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, and this was a lovely testament to that relationship.
  • “Added Muscle” – A cool and funny little ditty about Boba Fett and what he really thinks about serving as Jabba the Hutt’s hired thug.
  • “Born in the Storm” – OK. I never thought of a Stormtrooper as being funny, but this story literally had me laughing out loud in my car – you know, when you’re a double dork because you’re cracking up and there’s no one to hear you? Yeah, like that.
  • “There is Another” – Yoda is one of my favorite characters, and I really liked this glimpse into his life on Degobah – the heartbreaking loneliness he experiences in the wake of losing everyone he holds dear, and the tiny glimpse of hope he allows himself to feel at the possibility of training another young Skywalker.
  • “An Incident Report” – Bahaha – this is told from the POV of Admiral Motti, the dude Darth Vader Force-chokes in the staff meeting on the Death Star.
  • “Time of Death” – All the feels. Every single one of them. But it’s an Obi-Wan story, so also all the awesome.
  • “The Angle” – Lando, oh, Lando. You scoundrel.
  • “Palpatine” – This. Is. Bloody. Brilliant. In all honesty, probably a better listen than read, though.
  • “Whills” – This hilariously tells the tale of two historians arguing about how to chronicle a cultural phenomenon known as Star Wars.

img

A few random thoughts about some of the other stories…

  • In the words of Sheldon Cooper, “Wheeaaaaaatooooooonnnnnnnn!” Yup, he got me. Right in the feels.
  • Pierce Brown should write more Star Wars stuff.
  • I will never look at Grand Moff Tarkin the same way again. But, seriously, it makes so much sense. How did I not know???
  • “Wookiee aggression.” Hahaha.
  • Owen Lars has small man syndrome.
  • Leia got the short end of the stick.
  • Jabba the Hutt was always gross.
  • Never, never assume that just because a character isn’t the star, they aren’t important.

If you’re a Star Wars fan in any capacity, take the time to read (or listen to) this. It’s definitely worth it. Personally, I’ll never watch Star Wars in the same way. And I sincerely hope they do one of these for Empire and Jedi‘s fortieth anniversaries, as well.

May the Force be with you. Always.

 

Top 10 YA Reads of 2017

Another year has gone by, dear readers. It hardly seems possible. Where did the time go? I think this means I’m getting old. BUT, that’s neither here nor there…

Inevitably, at the end of the year, this reader/writer looks back at what she wasted spent her time on the last twelve months. In retrospect, I feel pretty good about my year, all-in-all. I got a lot done, much of it fun. Here are some of the things I’m going to count as wins:

  • I spent an entire year in my position at the Library, and saw some awesome things happen there. Our team gained several new staff members, all with unique strengths and talents, and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with them on a daily basis. We implemented a lot of new programs, and introduced some non-traditional materials, and our patrons ❤ ed them. So that’s pretty cool.
  • I prevailed in the Great Reading Contest of 2017. I have to give props to my little sis, though, because she found/recommended some great books to me that I may not have otherwise come across. And I have a feeling that the GREAT READING CONTEST OF 2018 isn’t going to be so easy a win, because now she has her Competition Pants on.
  • I spent an entire year writing regularly, like, with goals and accountability partners and stuff. That was WAY new for me. I also tried not being a pantster, and did a little plotting. Because of this, I
  • Wrote a book. From scratch, start to finish. And it wasn’t even that hard. (Not to belittle the time and work authors put into their books – I mean, it’s really hard work. It was just not nearly as hard when I did the groundwork ahead of time.) It’s got me thinking that maybe the “planning” thing isn’t such a bad idea.

In addition to looking back over some goals met, I am also obliged to include the inevitable “Best of” year-end list. As most of you know, I read across a lot of genres, but particularly like to read YA. So this list in particular highlights my Top 10 YA Reads of 2017. Picking only ten books was SO hard. If I had no life, and no other responsibilities, I could have done a Top 30 list. But, alas, I am a grown-up, so you only get ten.

I don’t have any “official” criteria by which I judge books. But they have to hold my attention, and I have to care about the characters. I don’t like books with sucky characters. That’s just straight-up honesty.I don’t have any patience for whiny, helpless characters (most of the time female, which I also take exception to. Like, why can’t more people write strong, capable, ladies who can wear lipstick while twirling nun chucks?). I end up wanting them to die, and I’m fairly certain that’s not the intent of the author. So to make the list, the book had to have good characters.

I am one of those crazies who likes a complex plot. Linear simplistic plots are complete snoozefests, and tell me one of two things: 1) the author lacks imagination enough to carry off an interesting subplot, or 2) the author thinks his reader isn’t intelligent enough to follow multiple lines. Either way, simple = boring. Give me a broken/multiple timeline story with different narrators and POVs any day over something linear and sensible. So to make the list, the book had to have a complex plot.

Interesting settings are the cherry on top of sprinkle-laden whipped cream covering the hot fudge book sundae. An imaginary setting isn’t necessary, but I want to see something that makes the setting different. A book can take place in a completely conventional location – say, New York City – but be presented in a completely unique way, and that engages my own imagination. So to make the list, the book had to have an interesting setting (though this wasn’t a deal-breaker).

Without further ado, here they are, in numbered, but no particular order:

10 The Reader1. The Reader by Traci Chee – I put off reading this book for the longest time. Heaven only knows why. It was clever and beautiful, and about a Book that holds All The Power. And it has pirates. Lots of pirates. There’s mystery and murder and magic, and really, what more can you want? You can read my full review here.

10 The Girl at Midnight2. The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Gray – This book (well, this trilogy, really) was the sleeper of the year for me. I picked it up on a whim because, well, dragons, and read the whole trilogy in three days. The heroine is sassy and stabby and isn’t afraid to say exactly what she’s thinking. And did I mention there are dragons?

10 Caraval 3.Caraval by Stephanie Garber – Can we all just take a minute to appreciate a book about a magical, slightly murdery island that is a little reminiscent of a nightmarish Wonderland?

10 The Casquette Girls 4.The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden – I have so much love for this book (and its sequel, The Romeo Catchers). Vampires (but not sparkly ones, thank the godstars), ghosts, voodoo, and witchery set in New Orleans? With a double helping of red beans and rice, thank you very much. You can read my entire review of this book here.

10 Six of Crows 5.Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – Riff-raff, street rat, I will buy that. Throw in some revenge, criminal masterminding, an enigmatic gang leader, and the most ballsy heist since Oceans 11, and you’ve got a great story.

10 Strange the Dreamer 6.Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – Beautiful, beautiful blue monsters. And “Strange” isn’t an adjective. That is all.

10 A Study in Charlotte 7.A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro – A (in my opinion) brilliant new take on the Holmes/Watson dynamic, where Holmes is appropriately infuriating yet awesome, and Watson actually has some agency.

blog nevernight 8.Nevernight by Jay Kristoff – Murder wrapped in death wrapped in killing dipped in blood, with a smart- mouthed, cigarillo-smoking female antihero protagonist who has a license to kill. Jay Kristoff is basically a god. (Note: this is arguably not a YA title…)

10 The Dark Days Club 9.The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman – Proof that women can do anything – even hunt demons in a corset. Oh, and resist the patriarchy.

10 Lord of Shadows 10.Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare – Flawed characters with good intentions who keep secrets from one another in an effort to protect each other, but end up putting each other in more danger because of their stubbornness. Sassy, stabby Emma and scheming Julian. You can read my full review of this book here.

In reality, there were so many good books I read this year. Kudos to all of you authors out there who keep giving us amazing stories to read. I can’t wait to dive into 2018.

My next reads are:

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

The Speaker by Traci Chee

A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab

How’s that for an awesome lineup?!

Au revoir.

“This is a Book”

I’ve had this book sitting on the top of my TBR pile for months now, and I finally got to it. I’m so glad I did, because I loved it, and now I’m a little annoyed that I waited so long to read it. I will not make the same mistake with The Speaker.

I really liked the concept of this book. It takes the idea that books include *all the knowledge* and sprints away with it. But in this society, land, world people don’t know how to read, or even what writing is. It is not something that is taught, not something that is desired. Except by a very few. And these few control the fate of the realms.

In some ways the story is cliche – young girl loses parents and all she holds dear, and is forced to venture out into the big, wide, scary world alone, and learns she has a rare and secret superpower, which, of course, others want to take advantage of. But that’s where the “been there, done that” stops. Nin is not helpless, and she is not foolish; she is no damsel in distress. In fact, she becomes the hunter, the rescuer, and attempts to take her fate and her future into her own hands.

Along the way, she befriends a ship full of pirates (because what girl doesn’t need a handsome captain and scallywag crew on her side?) and rescues a boy whose greatest talent is murder (who happens to be a mute, by the by). So, really, nothing typical here.

This book had a couple of things I really liked:

  • This book is not for the faint of heart. It has multiple storylines, and multiple timelines, which I ❤ ❤ ❤ . The threads weave in and out of one another, sometimes knotting together, sometimes barely touching, but the end result is a beautiful, intricately crafted tapestry. I so appreciate authors who assume their readers are intelligent, and Traci Chee does not make things easy for her readers. She expects them to follow and keep up, and she tells the story unapologetically.
  • Many books which feature a disabled or special needs character (no matter what it is that makes them so), whether intentionally or not, portray that character as somewhat less than. When I understood that Archer couldn’t speak, I was nervous that he would be shown as more of a victim than anything, someone to be pitied. This was not the case. At all. Though it took him a little time to get his bearings, and to settle in with Nin, he was never a victim. It was almost as if he was just waiting for me, the reader, to understand him, before he revealed himself. (And perhaps this was Chee’s intention – for her readers to experience what Nin experienced with Archer.) Archer is strong, he is smart, he is kind, which makes his ability to kill someone with a flick of his wrist even more important.

I like it when books surprise me in a good way, and this one certainly did. There is mystery, there is love, there is danger, there is adventure, there is heartache – all ingredients for a great story.

Peace out, my friends.

 

Crooked and Saintly

One of the reasons I enjoy YA literature is because YA authors are willing to write about absolutely anything and everything.  They are not self-conscious, they are not pretentious, they are not shy.  What they are is brave.  And inventive. And original. I mean, cyborg Cinderella? Check. Time-traveling pirates? Ahoy. Gender-bent Dracula origin story?  Savage.  It’s my firm belief that YA authors take full advantage of the fact that there are a lot of people out there who want to read stories that speak to their imagination – that make them feel wonder and confusion and atmosphere.

I recently sat down with the most recent release of an author I feel is one of the most unique currently writing in the genre.  That is to say her books are straight up cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.  They’re disorienting and magical and confusing, and represent all the best things about YA literature.  And when I finished reading All the Crooked Saints the only thing I could think was: what must it be like to live in Maggie Stiefvater’s head?

The book is about – (waves hand vaguely in the air) – darkness and monsters and love and slightly creepy, miracle-hungry owls. It’s hard to pin down, really.  The narrative is written in omniscient POV, which isn’t done a lot, and it took a little getting used to.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times in the first fifty pages I just looked at this book and said, “It’s so WEIRD.” But a good weird, not a bad weird. And it took me a while to catch on to all the intricacies of the miracles and the anti-miracles (as I came to think of them), but once I did, I steamrolled ahead.

In all honesty, what kept me reading was the characters. The Soria family is wholly unique and individual, and unlike anything I’ve ever come across. In a way, they’re unrelatable because of their remarkable gift; on the other hand, it made me care about them all the more.  They represent the best and worst aspects of humanity, in that they have the ability to work amazing miracles, but those miracles also call forth unimaginable darkness. And it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of adults in this book – all of whose stories play an important role in the events of the book. That is something very different for a YA read. I liked it, and think it added richness to the overall tapestry of the narrative.

The story of the Sorias of Bicho Raro, Colorado, teaches lessons about people and humanity, and the miracles coupled with the inescapable darkness speak of deeper truths. But there is a shiny, glittery spark of hope here, too. Stiefvater does not crush all dreams (though she is completely capable of doing so). Individuals at the mercy of their darkness can choose to face that darkness, accept the truth of the part of their soul it represents, and banish it. In essence, if they are true to themselves, they are freed. What greater lesson can there be?

If you’re a Stiefvater fan, this one is a little different, even for her.  Ye be warned.  I even recall one particular tweet in which the author herself referred to this as “my weird little book”. Enough said.

 

 

 

When Fiction Becomes Reality

If you’re a loyal (or even an occasional) reader, you know that I ❤ New Orleans with a capital ❤ . I love the history, the food, the people, the music… There is always something going on in NOLA, and if you’re there and are bored, it’s your own fault. My darling husband and I just returned from NOLA, where we spent several days doing some touristy stuff (no matter how many times you visit, the nighttime ghost tours of the French Quarter are always a must), and a lot of wandering around on our own.

There’s no real way to adequately describe the personality of a city like New Orleans. It’s schizophrenic in the best possible way.  Every street has its own style, its own flair, its own history, and its own look. This is why you can walk a mere block or two and have it seem like you’ve stepped into another world.  The Vieux Carre is as different from the Garden District as the sun is from the moon.

Though there are other places I have visited that I enjoyed, none of them have captured my soul quite like NOLA has.  Because I thrive on stories – I read them, I write them, I tell them.  And NOLA has endless stories.  Some are horrid and bloody (Madame Delphine LaLaurie, I’m lookin’ at you right now), some are outlandish and nigh unbelievable (the ghost of a pirate guarding Jean Laffite’s treasure haunts Laffite’s Blacksmith Shop, a local bar), and some are downright sad (a boarding school burned, killing several children who couldn’t escape). But ALL of them, no matter the subject, are interesting.

I stumbled across Alys Arden’s book The Casquette Girls purely by accident – one of those “if you liked this, then try that” types of things. I read the blurb, and saw that it was set in New Orleans (relatively) present-day, and that it somehow involved vampires.  This presented a conundrum. With the exception of one or two specific titles, I am not a fan of vampire books. At all. However, I am a fan of New Orleans. So the fact that this book was set in the Big Easy drew it out of the “nope” category into the “I’ll give it a try” category. I’m so glad I did, because, Reader, I am in total love with this book. Arden takes several prominent (and some obscure) urban legends from New Orleans history and, along with some contemporary events, weaves them into a beautiful tale of mystery, magic, and adventure.

First of all, the setting is perfectly presented. It conveys the colorful personality of New Orleans – in all its aspects – very well. It embraces the diversity, the culture, the humanity of the city and its residents unapologetically – even proudly. Additionally, it is set in the days following “the Storm”, which is obviously Hurricane Katrina, but is never specifically named as such. So readers get to experience the devastation, the loss, the frustration of the situation right along with the characters.

And let’s talk about those characters for a minute… The story revolves around Adele – born and raised New Orleansian, half-American/half-French, and telekinetic; Desiree – New Orleans native, mayor’s daughter, and hereditary voodoo witch; and Isaac – high school dropout, relief worker, and animagus. I liked how each of the characters is in a different stage of their supernatural journey: Adele learns of her abilities at the beginning of the book, Isaac knows what he is but is still coming to terms with it, and Desiree has known of her gifts from birth and has been practicing magic her whole life. The characters are dynamic, individual, and interesting all, in their own rights.

The plot of this book kept me rapt, and I literally lost sleep over it (because I stayed up late reading). It expertly intertwines a past storyline with a present storyline and make me care equally about both. The past bleeds forward into the present, and decisions made by characters in the past affect the fate of characters in the future. I liked the limited POV, and that I learned things as the characters learned them; I felt a sense of profound pleasure when I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

I must confess, though, that I did NOT see the plot twist coming, so that was a nice surprise.

I also liked that though this book had vampires, it wasn’t wholly about vampires. Yes, they played a role and essentially acted as a catalyst for the events, but they weren’t the main focus of the story. Which was totally fine by me.

On a sidenote: I read this book before my husband and I went on our latest trip to NOLA, and it was a blast to be able to try to find all the different places highlighted in the book on the actual streets of the French Quarter.  Alys Arden grew up in NOLA, and as an expert on the area, adds in places that only locals (or someone who is a frequent visitor) know about.  I took pictures of some of them.

blog tearoom
Bottom of the Cup Tea Room
blog count
St. Germain House
blog convent
Old Ursuline Convent

Overall, I found this book to be fun and thoughtful and clever, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Romeo Catchers.